Throughout history, the free flow of information has been a powerful agent of liberation and economic development. For authoritarian regimes, the dilemma has been to find the right balance between these forces, usually by manipulating information through propaganda and controls on the media, rather than outright banning it.
Cuba is not exempt from these challenges. The Castro regime clearly needs to expand information and communication technologies (ICT) to spur fundamental reform of its economy, but deeply fears the political impact of widespread access to ICT. How it pursues that balance can be greatly facilitated, or exacerbated, by U.S. policy towards Cuba.
We know there is a strong correlation between access to ICT and economic growth and development. Conversely, the large investments required for ICT infrastructure will only take place when there is a revenue model to support the investment and provide investors with market-based rates of return. In the case of Cuba, this became clear with cellular phones. As little as five years ago, there were just a few thousand mobile phones in Cuba, almost all of them in the hands of government officials, foreigners and members of the elite. Since 2008, when President Raul Castro announced the lifting of the ban on cell phones, the number of cell phones is rapidly approaching one million. The reason is simple—cell phone revenues have become an important source of hard currency. The economic model outweighed political concerns.
It is unreasonable to hope for the development of other ICTs, such as the internet and social media, without economic models to make them work. Thus, the challenge for U.S. policymakers consists not only in effecting targeted reforms to its 50-year old embargo, but in broadly lifting all restrictions that hinder the development of an economic model capable of sustaining the requisite investments in ICT in Cuba, and the corresponding consumer demand for the services. A piecemeal approach will simply not do the job.
Laying this knowledge and infrastructure foundation is essential for the long-term economic prospects of the Cuban people. Getting there requires three steps: 1) more explicit and flexible U.S. regulations governing the export and investments in ICT infrastructure in Cuba; 2) more flexible U.S. regulations to allow for the development of an ICT consumer market in Cuba; and 3) the development of distance-learning programs on the technology, experiences and applications of ICT to economic and humanitarian activity.